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DG #49 preview: The battle over the future of the National Trust

The National Trust AGM 2022 at the Bath Assembly Rooms, November 2022. Photo: National Trust Images

The new issue of Delayed Gratification features a longform article by our associate editor Matthew Lee on the rebellion at Europe’s largest conservation charity, the National Trust. Here, our editorial director Rob Orchard asks Matthew about his experience of reporting the story.

Rob Orchard: What is the story about?
Matthew Lee: In a nutshell it’s about a rebellion by a group of National Trust members who seek to change the direction the charity is taking. Broadly speaking, the Restore Trust rebels are traditionalists who believe that the National Trust has taken a progressive turn and drifted away from its founding principles; the National Trust, of course, doesn’t view things the same way. The National Trust AGM in Bath in November 2022, where my story begins and ends, was an opportunity for the rebels to get some of its supporters elected to the charity’s council and gain internal influence. But they left Somerset without any wins.

RO: Were you at all apprehensive about writing a ‘culture wars’ story?
ML: Jon Ronson, who made an excellent BBC radio series on the origins of the ‘culture wars’, told Louis Theroux in an interview that his objective was to tell ‘culture wars’ stories that didn’t inflame the ‘culture wars’. That became my guiding principle while working on this. Certainly some politicians and editors intentionally stoke the ‘culture wars’ in the belief that it’s beneficial for votes or ratings, and I really don’t want to be part of the problem. So yes, I was a little apprehensive because topics that have been part of the ‘culture wars’ narrative tend to make people angry, but I tried to write an article that cut through the anger, noise and misinformation that seem to be part and parcel of ‘culture wars’ stories.

RO: Has misinformation been a particular problem on this topic?
ML: Definitely, although I wouldn’t want to claim that the spreading of false information has always been intentional – mistakes sometimes happen. The thing that really piqued my interest on this story was a tweet claiming that Restore Trust was behind a member’s resolution criticising the National Trust’s involvement in Pride events. This, however, was not true – it was someone outside Restore Trust who spearheaded the resolution. The tweet was possibly an honest error – the Guardian published an article with a headline that strongly suggested that Restore Trust were behind the resolution and later corrected the error.

RO: What other problems did you find on the reporting of this topic?
ML: Whether it’s about the National Trust’s report on colonialism and slavery or about the alleged links between Restore Trust and the right-wing think-tanks at 55 Tufton Street, there’s been an awful lot of misinterpretation, misinformation, speculation and false claims. And then there’s that problem of coverage of ‘culture wars’ topics inflaming the ‘culture wars’. Many articles and columns on the National Trust liberally use the terms ‘woke’ and ‘non-woke’. But these are loaded terms which mean different things to different people, and it’s become almost impossible to use them as descriptors without it feeling like ‘culture wars’ point-scoring to readers. In a Telegraph interview with Zewditu Gebreyohanes, the director of Restore Trust who I interviewed for this article, she says that reducing things to ‘woke’ or ‘anti-woke’ is bad for debate, and yet in the very same piece the interviewer refers to how she’s “ruffling woke feathers” and taking on the “woke brigade”. I struggled to find coverage of this topic that doesn’t feel one-sided.

RO: Where do you see this story going?
ML: It doesn’t look like Restore Trust will disappear any time soon, much as the National Trust management would love them to just go away. I’m sure they’ll be back at the 2023 AGM and we’ll see if they have more success next time.

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